Lee: With Kim Jong Il Dead, a Chance to Normalize Inter-Korean Relations

Kim Il Sung (L) and Kim Jong Il are pictured in this piece of propaganda art photographed in North Korea. (Flickr/yeowatzup)

Kim Jong Il is dead. While it is never clear whether history creates a leader, or a leader creates history, one thing is clear: The more a leader dominates power over a nation, the more its regime's fate will be changed by that leader’s death. So where is North Korea headed after Kim Jong Il’s death?

At this time, it is wise to look back at history. The year 1945 was an epoch-making turning point of imperialism. The late 1980s was when the imperialistic era ended in the East as the Cold War ended in the West.

As most nations started following new currents and directions, South Korea withdrew calls for anti-communist unification and paved a way toward democratization. It declared a plan of national community unification in 1989. The change in international affairs was symbolized by Germany’s unification in 1990, and it seemed like a new era for inter-Korean relations with both Koreas joining the United Nations at the same time.

Led by Kim Il Sung, the North acknowledged the Inter-Korean Basic Agreement and the Joint Declaration of Non-Proliferation in 1992. Because of its active involvement in joint talks, it seemed to be keeping up with how the world was turning. However, at the same time North Korea was not able to overcome its nervousness about this change. So it committed itself to a parallel strategy of continuing to develop secret nuclear weapons. This created the first nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula.

Then, faced by the ongoing sanctions from the United States and the international community, Kim Il Sung invited former U.S. President Jimmy Carter to Pyongyang in June 1994 to demonstrate his acknowledgement of the seriousness of the situation. He made a positive move by saying he would support an Inter-Korean Summit. This was not surprising when you consider that Kim Il Sung had just witnessed how Deng Xiaoping’s open-door policy lead to a drastic turn toward a market economy in China. He had also just seen how the Soviet Union had broken up and Eastern Europe had been liberated.

But on June 8, 1994 — about two weeks before the Inter-Korean Summit — Kim Il Sung suddenly died, leaving the two Koreas in disarray.

It would be a waste of time to speculate how the Inter-Korean relationship might have progressed had he lived longer. However, the contrast between the father and the son is unfortunate. The next 17 and a half years under Kim Jong Il were a complete failure. Kim Jong Il built a Hermit Kingdom that isolated itself from the world and brought upon severe economic breakdown that resulted in a tragic loss of over a million people due to starvation. This chapter in history shows the price a dictator is willing to pay.

Kim Jong Il’s death had been foreseen for a considerable period of time and it is assumed that the regime had a strategic plan for succession in place. Therefore, it is likely that North Korea will not fall any time soon. Nonetheless, it cannot delay making a choice between continuing to isolate itself and operating as a normal state system. Kim Jong Il’s death provides North Korea with the opportunity to make a choice to change direction.

2012 is a celebratory year for the North as it marks the centennial of Kim Il Sung’s birth. There is no better time than now to set a new direction for North Korea and its people by remembering Kim Il Sung’s teachings, and what he was trying to achieve before his death. Didn’t Kim Jong Il himself stress that the joint declaration of non-proliferation was his father’s wish?

Otherwise, the future of North Korea is gloomy. It is possible that it may become self-destructive as a result of impulsiveness. There is a risk that the regime’s unique characteristics could put the nation up against a wall.

Peace and prosperity in the Asian-Pacific era is only possible when the two Koreas overcome their division. It is imperative that we lead the other powers, like the U.S. and China, to support positive change in North Korea. We should take this opportunity as a step forward to unification.

This article was translated and edited from its original Korean version.

About the Author

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Dr. Lee Hong-koo, former Prime Minister of South Korea, is Honorary Chairman of the Asia Society Korea Center.